Mark Shenton: Can screen actors make the transition to theatre work?

Bryan Cranston in Network at the National Theatre. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Some performers are stage actors and others are film or television actors: better suited either for the larger gestures of filling a theatre and reaching the back row of the upper circle, or for the close-up scrutiny of the camera lens.

It’s not always easy to bridge the two, though there are many, of course, who do. Almost invariably it is because they’ve begun their careers on stage, before moving over to screen roles, from Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, to Mark Rylance, Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Damian Lewis, Andrea Riseborough, Hayley Atwell and countless others.

Yet each and every year a succession of actors who’ve earned their celebrity on screen march the other way into West End or Broadway shows, with producers hoping they’ll translate their movie fame to box office interest, and the actors themselves hoping for the validation of their acting talents that the theatre will bestow on them.

Just this week Bryan Cranston – whose career has been mainly focused on screen and is best known for TV series Breaking Bad – made his London stage debut in Network at the National, after previously winning a Tony award for best leading actor for his 2014 Broadway debut in All the Way, in which he played US president Lyndon B Johnson. In a review for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood wrote: “Mr Cranston strides on to the Broadway stage with an admirable confidence”, and went on to say that his “heat-generating performance galvanises the production”.

In previews for her second New York appearance is Uma Thurman, starring in a new play, The Parisian Woman (it opens at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre on November 30). When Thurman last attempted an assault on the stage, in a 1999 Off-Broadway version of The Misanthrope, Ben Brantley said that “she brings to mind a beautiful, sheltered girl at her first grown-up dance, putting on airs and hoping against hope she’ll get away with it. Her valuable stock-in-trade on screen, a sly, feline confidence, evaporates here.”

In a recent interview in the New York Times, she acknowledged the challenge – “I don’t expect anyone to pat me on the back” – but took a moment to shift some of the blame on Martin Crimp’s script, which she called “so impenetrably difficult. It was madness”. In the same interview, however, she spoke of the challenges of performing on stage: “Of course it’s exposing. But no exposure, no challenge. You can’t test yourself in safety.”

When rising British film actor Jack O’Connell and Sienna Miller recently starred in the West End in the Young Vic-produced version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both disrobed in some scenes. It led Natasha Tripney in these pages to say that the production felt “like an exquisite skin show coupled with an opulent soap opera”, but for O’Connell, it was necessary for verisimilitude. As he explained in an interview with Variety: “I was given the option to wear swimwear, to keep my modesty intact. That’s the easy way out. You think, ‘When does anyone really shower with underwear on?’ I find that more distracting.”

And that’s both the key challenge and reward of the theatre: there’s nowhere to hide. But neither can screen stars come to the stage without preconceptions on the part of audience and critics alike. When Brantley reviewed Julia Roberts’ Broadway debut in Three Days of Rain in 2006, he made the intimate and revealing admission: “My name is Ben, and I am a Juliaholic. While I blush to admit it, she is one of the few celebrities who occasionally show up in cameo roles in my dreams.”

He admitted that he, like much of the rest of the young, heavily female audience, “wanted our Julia to do well”. But then he declared: “She does not do well – at least not by any conventional standards of theatrical art. Your heart goes out to her when she makes her entrance in the first act and freezes with the unyielding stiffness of an industrial lamppost, as if to move too much might invite falling.”

Ouch. That’s partly about (a lack of) confidence, but also about lack of technique. Stage chops need to be learnt. And there’s only one place to learn them: on stage.

It’s why Denzel Washington, who is returning to Broadway next year in The Iceman Cometh, makes such an easily compelling stage presence: the theatre is where he began. As he told me in an interview earlier this year: “I was introduced to acting through theatre. And fortunately, the first two plays I did were Eugene O’Neill and Shakespeare. So I was a snob before I knew it. I thought that one day I’d work on Broadway and earn $600 a week and that would be fine. It wasn’t the goal to get to Hollywood.”

But now every time he returns to the stage, as well as acting technique, he brings his celebrity with him – and with it, a corresponding impact on the box office.